Re: Andy's recommendation of the NASA digital orrery (MBW 754)

Mechanical orreries are wonderful things; they go back hundreds of years. The original “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” featured an orrery in its final action scene. Less-dangerous orreries are standard fare at planetariums and other museums. They had gears and chains showing the orbits of planets and the moons; all the pieces moved in lock-step.

The NASA digital orrery is beautiful, but my favorite orrery is the one created by Gerald Sussman and Jack Wisdom from MIT. Their paper “Numerical Evidence that the Motion of Pluto is Chaotic” (1989) put the last nail in the coffin of Newton’s “clockwork universe”. The solar system, the galaxy, and the entire universe moves in a chaotic fashion, and this scientific finding has never made it to our collective awareness. We had a major brouhaha about the planet-ness of Pluto, but missed this update about the dynamics of classical mechanics.

Their Digital Orrery was a custom chip fabricated in the age of the Intel 80386. I’m guessing it ran at around 5MHz, and included a special floating-point processor. It also included a map of the MBTA – Boston’s subway system. :grin: I wish I could find an image. That glacially-slow chip (by modern standards) moved the earth – figuratively speaking.


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